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IBM honors Hubbard native

Imagine being able to detect one of the leading causes of hospital deaths, and one of the most expensive conditions in health care to treat, months in advance to save lives and for health care providers, tremendous amounts of money.

That’s exactly what Curren Katz and her team at Pittsburgh-based Highmark Health did alongside IBM’s Data Science Elite team — predict members who are at future risk of sepsis, a condition that happens when the body, as it fights infection, turns on itself and starts to damage its own tissues.

For that achievement, Katz, 38, formerly of Hubbard, was recognized by IBM, one of the world’s leading innovators in artificial intelligence as one of the top 40 women across the globe in the field as part of the company’s prestigious Women Leaders in AI program.

The awards are given yearly. This year, Katz, of Pittsburgh, joins women from 18 countries who are revolutionizing the AI technology field, an area that has been mostly male dominated.

IBM started the program in 2019 to encourage increased diversification in the field and give honorees a network for shared learning. The women, according to Ritika Gunnar, IBM’s vice president, Expert Labs, IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software, “are paving the way forward in AI for business and impacting how people work and live.”

IMMERSION

Rewind a few decades to when Katz was introduced to the health care field. Her father, William, was a surgeon and her mother, Susan, was a nurse who became a medical malpractice defense lawyer.

She said she spent a lot of time at dad’s medical practice and went on rounds with her father as a young girl — often disobeying orders to stay away in another room while he worked — giving her a glimpse of the treatment side of the profession and growing her love of medicine.

She had always heard of the legal side from her mother, who was the first woman partner at her law firm.

It was mom who blazed the trail for her daughter in the sense that the sky’s the limit for Katz, giving her the confidence to pursue advanced degrees and executive-level positions.

“I had a great example of that (female leadership) early from my mom, which I’m sure gives me confidence to not really doubt the fact that I could be in what, at times, has been a male-dominated technology field and be a leader in that field,” Katz said.

GROWING UP / EDUCATION

Katz admits, albeit in a cheeky way, she needs a navigation device to get around Hubbard. It’s where her parents, both now retired, still live, but a place she’s really spent little time in.

She attended Hubbard Exempted Village School District through the third grade, then the family moved to Virginia, where she completed through the eighth grade. She attended high school at the well-respected small all-girls private Oldfields School, another nurturing and supportive environment for women.

Afterward it was on to New York University, which is where Katz took a liking to artificial intelligence.

A student of early childhood education and special education, while student teaching kids with several multiple disabilities in a hospital setting, she became curious about the neuroscience behind what she was seeing.

In short, she wanted to learn how those kids learned.

“I loved it, it was wonderful, (but) I just kept thinking, well, what is going on with how they are learning. How are they are learning? How are they thinking? What is happening with these disabilities, could they be prevented, could they be treated?” Katz said.

It led her to pursue advanced degrees in brain science — a master’s from Harvard Graduate School and a doctorate from Humboldt University of Berlin, where alumni include 57 Nobel Prize winners, including Albert Einstein and German theoretical physicist Max Planck.

At Harvard, she worked as a research coordinator at Beth Israel Medical Center and then at Humboldt, she did work as a research coordinator.

At the end of her time at Humboldt, around the middle of 2015, “this newly created field of data science was getting a lot of attention and neuroscience was a great background.

“We had the coding skills, math skills and understanding of things like neural networks. I had always loved predicting and I built my first predictive model for diagnosis in 2009, for fun,” Katz said. “I also published a paper on predicting suicide risk. When I was offered an opportunity to join Highmark as a data scientist, I was thrilled. It allowed me to contribute to health care from both a payer and a provider perspective and use AI. Although I joined as a data scientist doing model building, I quickly moved into leadership and built a department.”

CAREER / AWARD

Katz joined Highmark in August 2016, but recently left for a new position at Janssen Research and Development, the pharmaceutical company of Johnson & Johnson.

Her attraction to AI, in large part, is because of the unlimited opportunities for change the field presents.

“As I learned about the methods and techniques and what AI could do, and combining that with the potential for medicine, it was just really clear — this is amazing, this is something I want to do,” Katz said.

As director of data science R&D for Highmark, Katz led an initiative that has the potential to save thousands per single incident, up to $48,000 some published scientific literature suggests.

She and her team of about 20 people set out to determine if sepsis could be prevented, or at least facilitate early identification and treatment before patients are hospitalized. Before this, most AI applications focused on early detection in a hospital setting using physiological data in near-real time, but the set goal for the work was to give clinicians and caregivers three months to intervene.

“But no one had predicted sepsis this far in advance and we were not even sure it was predictable. Using various data elements, my team alongside IBM’s Data Science Elite team were able to predict members at risk for future sepsis,” Katz said.

Winning the award, she said, was shocking. Katz said her boss was thrilled, “but I was still trying to figure out what was going on.

“As a leader, you don’t hands-on do the work. I just kept finding opportunities for a bunch of talented people to be able to do the work and make a difference and then clear the obstacles around them,” Katz said.

rselak@tribtoday.com

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